Excellence in Public Service
Associate Professor of Education
College of Liberal Arts
Right: Nose in a book, Grant Cioffi enjoys the children's literature section at Dimond Library.
By the book
Grant Cioffi loves to read. The first book he ever read from start to finish was Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. He remembers back to the days when he and his twin brother kept up with one another during first grade at Public School 87, near the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
His love of words has endured. Teaching high school just after college he recalls being "astounded that many kids couldn't read. It bothered me a lot," he says, "that kids doubted themselves and thought they were not as smart as other kids who loved to read." He started graduate school to study literacy and language more deeply.
An associate professor of education at UNH, Cioffi researches how individual children experience difficulty in learning to read and write. With his close colleague, John Carney, who passed away last summer, Cioffi has developed diagnostic procedures to help teachers formulate effective intervention for kids who experience reading and writing difficulty. He applauds the recent national attention on children's reading, but worries about the policy makers' focus. "We also need to teach children to write," he says, adding "Children need to learn to read and write not only to succeed in school and their professions, but also to participate in the political process." Learning to write, he says, prepares kids to exercise their First Amendment rights.
The recipient of this year's University Excellence in Public Service Award, Cioffi is best known in the region as one of the founders of Seacoast Reads, a tutoring program that matches UNH students as tutors with elementary school children. Over the last decade, one thousand UNH students have tutored as many kids in area schools. Recognizing the program's decade of service last spring, U.S. Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter commended the organization's accomplishments with at-risk students.
Cioffi's public service extends beyond UNH and the Seacoast area. Most weeks he finds himself in schools statewide, working with teachers and children. For 20 years, he has traveled to Boston to work in the Learning Disabilities Program at Children's Hospital Medical Center, and during his summers he has even taught children's literature to teachers from Zurich, Switzerland.
"Literacy helps kids and adolescents navigate the world," he says, and recalls one of his father's lessons. "He'd say that for just about any idea, anything I wanted to do, someone had probably already figured it out and written it down. The trick was to find that book and read it."
And so it goes for Cioffi, where books continue steering his course long after those early days with Dr. Seuss. He describes his life away from the University with his family on Animal Farm (they're big fans of Orwell) as quiet, "bordering on boring, probably, to the rest of the world, but I like it." He's been known to tinker with an old Alfa Romeo or spend an evening caulking a wooden boat. According to Dean Marilyn Hoskin, Cioffi built a bicycle from junk parts and rides it to campus most days from his home in Barrington.
And, of course, he loves to read, generally favoring mysteries set in exotic locales, but, as a reading professor, any book is fair game. Recently he finished Andrew Blechman's Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird. He was especially fascinated by the story of Marty, a first-class homing pigeon who didn't return home at the expected time after a 300-mile race. Her owner had given up hope until a couple of weeks later when Marty appeared on the stoop in Yonkers. The pigeon had broken her wing and walked home.
The cat in the hat came back. So did the bird. And Grant Cioffi helps a new generation welcome them home.